A group of community volunteers wanted to solve a problem: inadequate access to the second floor of a historic building, the Odd Fellows Hall, in downtown Enterprise for people with disabilities. They came up with a plan to build a ramp to provide access to the building in the adjacent alley and brought it to the City Planning Commission. It was approved, but required a modification to the small parking area next to the City Library which required approval by the City Council.
The City Council convened to consider the proposal (see Chieftain article “Enterprise City Council Denies Parking Change at Library”, 13 March 2019). They also received several letters of support and at least a dozen supporters came to the meeting, including at least two with physical disabilities. Two people had expressed concerns about the proposal: the owner of the business next door who wrote a letter making vague claims about increased congestion and the city librarian whose parking lot would be affected.
When the volunteers presented their plan to the City Council, something strange happened. Rather than viewing the volunteers as allies in the common cause to make the city a better place, they were instead treated as adversaries by several of the councilors. Various potential flaws in the proposal, some legitimate, were identified, but none so major that they could not be addressed, and the volunteers were willing to modify their plan accordingly. Loss of a single parking spot was something that at least one councilor believed was a deal breaker. Apparently, he was not aware that, as he spoke, the library parking lot’s single handicapped parking space had been rendered unusable for weeks by a large mound of snow piled there by the city. The meeting quickly fell into disorder and at least a few citizens who had come to voice their support found no opportunity. Ultimately, the city council voted — not unanimously — to block the project, thereby denying people with disabilities access to a building that hosts a variety important community events.
What went wrong here? Having volunteered in city government (I served on and chaired the City Planning Commission for several years), I have appreciated the pragmatic approach that city leaders have generally taken in solving problems and improving life in our small community. Yet in this case, the City Council seems to have interpreted its role as defenders of the status quo, even if it meant standing in the way of a project that would cost its citizens nothing, while providing significant benefits to the community, especially to the elderly and those with disabilities.
I know that the members of the City Council are caring people and I don’t doubt that if a disabled person were to need assistance opening a door, they’d probably knock each other over in rushing to lend a hand. Why not tap into that same spirit and work together with like-minded organizations to solve what is undeniably a real problem? I don’t believe that the City Council was at its best the night that they voted against the proposal that would have allowed the access ramp to be built, but also believe they deserve a second chance. As a next step, I urge our mayor and the city council to initiate a process to work with community volunteers to find a way to improve access to the Odd Fellows Hall for people with disabilities. It’s the right thing to do.